Muhammad Ali’s Camp Now Fighter’s Heaven!
By Ken Hissner: In July of 2016, the owner of Muhammad Ali’s Deer Lake, PA, training camp, longtime owner, renowned martial arts instructor George Dillman sold the property to NFL Hall of Fame football coach John Madden’s son Mike. The undisclosed estimated price was half a million dollars.
It was said he spent 1.1 million in restoring the thirteen buildings and surrounding landscape at the Schuylkill County site into a museum.
Per Sandy Montag, John Madden’s longtime agent in regards to Mike’s investment, “He’s a huge Muhammad Ali fan. Huge,” said Montag. “He will preserve the history that is there and supplement that. Muhammad Ali was the greatest of all time, and a place like this should be preserved.”
Ali bought the 5-acre tract in 1972 and installed 18 primarily log buildings, including a gym, a dining hall, a mosque, visitors cabin, and a horse barn. He trained at Deer Lake until his last fight in 1981, using it to prepare for his major bouts with “Smokin” Joe Frazier and “Big” George Foreman.
“The place found me,” Mike Madden said with conviction while looking over his new purchase. The six-acre property is on Rt. 61, and Ali would do his roadwork on that route.
Madden was a college student when he met Ali. On the day of Ali’s death, his mind began to race after hearing what he described as some so-called experts “butcher the facts of his life” during a radio interview.
That led Madden, a California resident, and real estate businessman, to Google the next day, and to his surprise that the Deer Lake Training Camp was for sale. He pounced immediately and never looked back.
“The camp was just sitting there and rotting,” said Gene Kilroy. It took about two years for all to be restored.
Most of the eighteen cabins that had fallen into ruins, including the gym, the kitchen, the mosque, and Ali’s living quarters, were restored in fascinating, museum-quality luster.
“Seeing it was for sale was one of those ‘Animal House’ moments,” Madden said. “It was like I had an angel and a devil. Are you going to just be bitter the way he’s being remembered, or are you going to do something about it?”
Madden acted to make sure Ali is remembered as the civil rights leader and great athlete he was; not what some make him out to be as an unfeeling draft-dodger early in his career, and demented, punch drunk, has been long after he retired.
The camp still looks much like it did in Ali’s day. His desk and typewriter occupy an office near the gym. The dining hall has the original stove and kitchen table. His footprints can be seen on the wood-planked ceilings—Ali had trod on them while the camp was under construction.
Ali sold it in 1997 to Dillman, who trained Ali and once operated it as the Butterfly and Bee Breakfast. Dillman would spar with Ali working on his foot positioning and hand speed.
This writer and writer Dave Ruff ventured to the camp in September of 2019, when it was open from May 1st to November 1st. In this article, I will share the many pictures that were taken.
One of the memorable moments I had was in 1977, sitting in a group in the gym with Ali, and I asked his then business manager Gene Kilroy to take a picture of us. As he was taking it, I looked at Ali and asked, “why are you fighting all of these bums?” The look on Ali’s face in the picture was like, “what you talking about, Willis?” Kilroy was quite upset and referred to former world heavyweight champion Joe “The Brown Bomber’s” Bum of the Month Club. I replied, “he just fought Chuck Wepner, didn’t he?”
Years later, I had the opportunity to interview Wepner on the telephone and question that on www.boxrec.com, it referred to his 80-0 amateur record not being possible, or he would have been an Olympic champ. Chuck replied, “remember those large phone booths where you could fit two people? One guy tried coming in, and I knocked him out! Those kinds of situations were included in my estimated record,” said Wepner.
One of the famous pictures at Fighter’s Heaven shows Ali with the Rock n’ Roll King Elvis Presley. Presley, I understand, had a martial arts background, and he displayed it while performing at times with his many moves. They both, I was told, owned a Stutz Bearcat automobile the same year only eight of them were sold, and I have a picture that was given to me showing Ali’s automobile. I once did an article, “Two Kings One of the Ring and One of Rock n’ Roll!”
The opening picture shows caretakers Mick Stefank and Joe Bascio. Mick was our tour guide during our visit. Next, I picture of me with the original WELCOME TO MUHAMMAD ALI TRAINING CAMP sign and next to the original wooden sign of Muhammad Ali’s Training camp. Then came what they called “Kilroy’s Corner,” with pictures of Kilroy and Ali. One area had a video playing with Ali and his entourage.
Outside were still the large stones/rocks with the names of former world boxing greats like ROCKY MARCIANO and JOE LOUIS. One cabin had a robe with Muhammad Ali on it, which I’m sure wasn’t his, but you never know.
Another cabin was his original cabin he slept in, but I was told the sap from the cabin disturbed him, and he moved elsewhere on the property. One picture that stood out was of Ali’s parents and brother with him. Another had him with then his sparring partner and later heavyweight champion “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon.
A sign inside had this saying, “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
There is a picture of Ali with the singing group the Beatles with him holding one of them in the air. Another picture had Ali on horseback, being from Kentucky, that made sense.
There was an area with a heavy bag and a small boxing ring. The original gym was not open to the public at the time we visited, unfortunately.
On one of my past visits when Ali was in camp, I got to meet heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis along with Witherspoon and his trainer “Slim” Jim Robinson. Larry “The Easton Assassin” Holmes was also there at times with his trainer Ernie Butler.
Ali would entertain the many visitors in the camp that at times came in busloads. He was quite a jokester and came out one day with no shirt on, which is never what a boxer appears in. He did a couple of magic tricks which he loved to do, and remarked, “you can’t say I had it up my sleeve; I don’t have a shirt on!”
My last visit was when he was training for his ill-advised fight with Holmes having a large stomach showing. I questioned why with the condition he was, why would he be taking this fight? He padded his stomach and said, “I love my ice cream!” We all know what happened in that fight, the only one in his career he didn’t make it to the end.
I met one of my all-time favorites at the gym who had his name on one of the large rocks, “Kid” Gavilan, the IBHOF welterweight champion. At times it was like a “who’s who” there.
LeRoy Neiman, the artist, was there painting a picture of Ali on the knotty pine wall during one of my visits. There was never a dull moment at all times. Ali had a Korean martial arts instructor who was showing him the vulnerable points of the body where such fighters like Rocky Marciano seemed to know so well in wearing down his opponents.
Due to COVID-19, hours and services may vary. Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm are the current times per when I Googled it.
The address is 40 Sculps Hill Road, Orwigsburg, PA, 17961, for those using a GPS.
Phone 570-968-2961. Email email@example.com per their website.
This writer’s past articles include “Laughs with Ali,” Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali’s Amateur Record,” Cassius Clay vs. Those Southpaws,” “FACING ALI,” “HOW THIS WRITER REMEMBERS MUHAMMAD ALI,” “Was Muhammad Ali a Draft Dodger or A Hero?”, “Was Muhammad Ali the Most Colorful Athlete in Sports History?”, and “Remembering When This Writer Met Ali,” and recently one with Ali and Billy Crystal in Israel, along with others my memory fails me at this time.
Can you imagine if Ali’s bicycle was never stolen? Would he have ended up in that PAL Gym that policeman and boxing trainer Joe Martin was running?
Few people realize Ali, then Cassius Clay, lost in the Olympic heavyweight trials but was allowed to compete in the lower weight one since he held amateur titles at both heavyweight and light heavyweight. His amateur record has about five different ones mentioned.
Ali’s professional record was 56-5 with 37 knockouts and 1 stoppage loss. He had 19 successful title defenses and was the first 3-time world heavyweight champion.
Like many fighters, Ali had some questionable wins over Sonny Liston twice, Ron Lyle, Doug Jones, and Jimmy Young, in some people’s opinions.
I met him in 1963 in center city Philadelphia on a street corner surrounded by fans, as usual, the first time after his loss to Ken Norton, where he suffered a broken jaw. Two weeks later, saw an article in the Philadelphia Daily News showing his previous home at 70th and Overbrook in West Philadelphia and the then current one in Cherry Hill, NJ. I was off to the latter one in the hope of meeting him again, which I did.
I remember being stationed at Ft. Jackson, SC, in the Army hearing about Ali refusing to be drafted and losing his livelihood, while NFL Quarterback Joe Namath refused induction due to a bad knee, though allowed to continue his career, and how unfair it was to Ali.
Ali managed to earn a living with speaking engagements in colleges and conventions. Those three and a half years took their toll on him, still able to slip punches when he returned to the ring.
Ali had won his first twenty-nine fights ending with his win over Zora Folley in March of 1967. He returned against Jerry Quarry in October of 1970. Two months later, he defeated Oscar Bonavena.
In March of 1971, Ali suffered his first career loss to “Smokin” Joe Frazier. One had to wonder what the outcome would have been like prime time to prime time.
Another ten straight wins would follow before his split decision loss to Ken Norton while suffering a broken jaw. He would defeat both Norton and Frazier in rematches and in third matches.
In October 1974, Ali would produce the “rope-a-dope” that helped defeat “Big” George Foreman but obviously cost him plenty health-wise taking punches tiring out his opponents.
Ten more wins would follow the Foreman victory before losing to Olympic champion Leon Spinks in February of 1978. In a rematch seven months later, he would regain a title he had lost, and that was the time he should have retired. The next two fights’ losses to Holmes and Trevor Berbick were devastating, with the latter one ending his career in December of 1981.
Some of his famous quotes were:
“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am!”
“If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
“Frazier is so ugly he should donate his face to the Bureau of Wild Life.”
“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beating each other up.”
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
When asked about golf: “I’m the best – I just haven’t played it yet.”
All of these are on www.boxrec.com
Ali’s brother, Rudy Clay, aka Rahman Ali, had a 14-3-1 with 7 knockouts record.
Ali’s daughter Laila “She Be Stingin” Ali, had a 24-0 with 21 knockouts record winning the WBA and WBC Female Super Middleweight titles.
Recently Ali’s grandson Nico Ali Walsh made his debut, winning a first round stoppage in Tulsa, OK, on Saturday, August 14th.
I could go on and on about Ali, whose life and career have had interests to many fans worldwide.
- Muhammad Ali’s Four Part Series by Historian Ken Burns!
- PBS Showed Two-Part Special on Muhammad Ali This Week!
- How Many Know of the “other side” of Big Mouth Muhammad Ali?
- Muhammad Ali & Billy Crystal Partner the “The Times of Israel!”